Re: Ignorance Made Visible


I liked and admired the IA too -- and was certain she deserved a good job -- but you're running several thoughts together here.

1. Leiter was criticizing O'Connor's claim that "it's obvious from IA's site what a fine teacher and scholar she is." Sorry, it just isn't. How could it be? What's obvious from her site is that she's an intelligent, energetic, conscientious person who writes well. Those qualities are (unfortunately) compatible with being a less than fine teacher or scholar. That isn't a comment about the IA but about what's possible.

2. That said, of course the IA deserves a tenure track job. Even apart from the info contained in the Chronicle piece, we can all agree that the IA deserves a place in her profession because any smart, energetic, conscientious person who writes well and gets a PhD deserves a place in his or her profession. The blog gave us lots of evidence that the IA is just like the far too many people we know who were unfairly adjunctified -- not because the site gave evidence of fine teaching and scholarship but because it gave evidence that the IA is in those other respects just like these people we know -- whose fine teaching and scholarship we know first hand. (Still, we may have to admit that we know one or two who share the IA's good qualities but aren't such great teachers or scholars. The evidence is therefore far from conclusive.)

3. Against Leiter, however, the issue isn't whether the IA is a "mediocrity." The issue is whether her work shows promise. Since we didn't see the work, or hear from anyone who had, we simply don't know whether it shows promise. That of course was by the IA's design. Her blog was not "one of the longest and most eloquent job interviews in history" mostly because the IA didn't present it as that. She wasn't aiming to show off her promise but to reflect on her predicament.

Again, I have tremendous admiration for the IA's blog -- and commensurate anguish at her inability to secure a position. But Leiter's right that first-rate blogging is not a legitimate hiring criterion. Nor did the IA herself ever suggest otherwise.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 6:38 AM
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If I read you correctly, you're saying that smart, energetic, conscientious people deserve a place in the profession, but we can't know whether they'll be fine teachers and scholars. Agreed. But why stop there? Why not mention those folks who have their Leiterian qualifications in order, but turn out to be lousy professors? In addition to pointing out Leiter's sanguine ignorance of the facts, I wanted to call attention to the rigidity of his categories for what "counts" and what doesn't.

Also, I think it's a bit misleading to frame the question as whether "first-rate blogging is a legitimate hiring criterion." Why drag the baggage of the silly word "blog" into the discussion? Why not ask whether someone's writing (and interaction with readers), in whatever forum, over the course of a year, can tell us something important about what kind of professor they'd be?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 10:11 AM
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Maybe it was that speculating about IA's "mediocrity" that got your goat? Yes, that was obnoxious (and yes, tone matters).

But Leiter's substantive point was correct, I think. There's lots to complain about regarding hiring practices in academia. But I don't think hiring criteria should be broadened (as O'Connor was suggesting) to include a demonstrated ability to run a good website like the IA's.

If you insist that it gives some evidence of teaching ability, I won't insist that it doesn't. But O'Connor's suggestion seemed to go far beyond that -- and to include research ability.

Again, the IA did not present her site as an advertisement of her employability. So I'm not criticizing her at all. I admire and miss her.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 11:50 AM
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Agreed on all that. Thanks, Ted.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 11:55 AM
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You conceded too fast! I was starting to think maybe I'd been too quick to agree with Leiter. A big datum for me is that I can't imagine a hiring committee at any place I've taught taking such a consideration seriously.

"Well, her website shows she's good at moderating discussion..." --I've never been party to a hiring discussion in which this could have been a (non-jokey, legitimate) contribution.

But that may show a lack of imagination.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 12:03 PM
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Did I concede? You wrote, "If you insist that it gives some evidence of teaching ability, I won't insist that it doesn't." That was good enough for me!

Really, that's the main point I want to get at: what IA did with her blog is relevant evidence. There's something bubbling here that I should pull up: I wouldn't be posting about this if I thought IA had met certain criteria, as if we were checking them off a list: good writer (check); moderates discussions (check).... Rather, I think the site shows that she does these things extraordinarily well. That's part of what so bothered me about Leiter's dismissal and why I insisted in the comments that we get away from "blogging as criterion." It wasn't just a good blog, it was someone gifted, blogging.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 12:15 PM
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I'm sorry, but here Leiter really is being a bit of an ass. First, IA's blog *is* evidence of her pedagogical skills. Anybody who thinks well and conscientiously about pedagogy, both the practical dilemmas of everyday business in the classroom and the deeper theoretical questions that surround teaching history and teaching in the modern university, is in my experience very likely to be an effective teacher.

In fact, this is often the only evidence that we have that someone is a good teacher at the time of hiring--that they can talk intelligently and practically about what they do in the classroom. About the only thing that IA didn't provide that a candidate does with regard to teaching is sample syllabi--otherwise, there's more evidence at her blog about her teaching skills than 99% of job candidates can offer at the time of their interviews. The only further evidence that one gets is watching a candidate give a sample job talk or a lecture in a classroom setting, and the latter isn't done everywhere. The former, I might add, may not tell you much about ability to teach undergraduates if it is aimed at the faculty, as it often is.

So the blog is good evidence of her teaching skills. What Leiter doesn't know about is her scholarship, and neither does O'Connor. I'm one of the few who does, and I can only say that I have a very good opinion of it. It's definitely competitive with candidates in her field. Leiter can take my word for it or not in that regard, but she's not a mediocrity.

In general, I think Leiter has a point in that essay, but it's a narrow point that in no way invalidates the general skepticism that many people have about the employment prospects of doctoral students in the humanities and the social sciences, nor does it address the kinds of dilemmas that IA centrally wrote about--as for example the kind of snobbery that takes hold when a strong candidate has spent more than three years adjuncting, and gets judged wanting because of it for reasons that have nothing to do with the qualifications they present.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 05-18-04 2:17 PM
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Just to clarify one thing in light of Burke's comment:

I've taught at three liberal arts colleges comparable to Burke's (but not at Burke's), and at each place the hiring criteria on the teaching side are: (a) teaching evaluations or other evidence from previous institutions (these have to be good in order for the candidate to get an interview but are not at issue later), (b) conversations about how the candidate would or does teach a wide range of courses, with lots of specifics beyond what you'd find on a syllabus, and (b) crucially, a teaching demonstration, where what's most important are the candidate's interactions with actual students.

In my experience, general conversations about the profession of teaching -- such as those at the Invisible Adjunct's site -- are not part of the routine, and for good reason. It is not a hiring criterion that the candidate have a well articulated view of the profession of teaching, something that only the rare candidate fresh from grad school (as most are) is likely to have. All that's required is that one actually be a good teacher.

I want to emphasize this because I know many people have the impression that hiring committees know practically nothing about a candidate's teaching ability. In my experience (at Kenyon, Bowdoin and several of the Claremont schools, I might as well say) nothing could be further from the truth.

What I couldn't quite see is how knowledge that a candidate has run a site like the IA's would relevantly add to what the hiring committee already knows.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 6:11 AM
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One correction to the previous comment:

In addition to mis-lettering the list of criteria, I should have added a fourth: (d) whether the students on the hiring committee (or serving as consultants for the hiring committee) like the candidate, having spent considerable time with him or her.

I've seen several candidacies go down in smoke because students spent a few hours with a candidate (over a meal, touring the campus, at a reception after the talk, etc.) and simply didn't like him or her. At my own campus visits, I remember getting to know some of the department's majors so well that when I returned the next fall it was as if I'd already had them in a class.

Again, my point is that at liberal arts colleges hiring departments know a lot about a candidate's teaching ability. The same is not true at most research universities, though even there a candidate will usually spend considerable time talking to graduate students, and graduate student perspectives will often provide input to the hiring decision.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 6:37 AM
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I'm talking about how you get into the finalists who come to campus. I have a hard time believing that when you're sorting people based on dossiers and screening interviews, you're looking at teaching evaluations in much detail. Demonstrations and conversations, of course, don't come until someone is at the least at a screening interview.

So what do I know about someone's teaching from their dossiers? I know what they say about teaching in their cover letter and about the kinds of courses they've taught, and about their teaching experience. Well, IA's provision of thinking about teaching is strikingly richer and more interesting than most cover letters, yes?

More on this: I'm really amazed that at Kenyon, Bowdoin and the Claremont schools, you guys pay much attention to teaching evaluations as a way to evaluate past teaching at the level of initial dossier evaluation. For one, that would tend to disqualify the newly-minted doctorates who have more limited teaching experiences, and whose teaching experiences may not have come with evaluations depending on where they taught and under what circumstances. We certainly don't disqualify those candidates; in fact, we're strongly interested in them.

I'd also think you'd be doing what we and other liberal-arts colleges I know do (Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan) which is have very little regard for the kinds of numerical machine-scored evaluations that are privileged at many institutions. Those tell me nothing worth knowing about a candidate's teaching ability. Forms that have substantive comments from students are, on the other hand, very useful, and if they're included in a dossier, I do take a look at them. They're just not a very consistently provided source of information, and I would never screen a candidate out because they failed to have them--someone would get into the finalists in my judgement because they'd done enough teaching, because they'd shown me something of how they teach, and because I had a sense that their view of teaching was compatible with the needs of a liberal-arts institution. Evaluations would take a back seat to that even if they were consistently a part of strong dossiers, which they are not.

As far as conversation about teaching goes, that's exactly what IA's site provides, minus the specifics of the courses she taught.

I agree that demonstration is the thing that really lets you see whether someone is a good teacher, but that only comes when someone is a finalist. There I would readily concede that some people who come off very well on paper in terms of their teaching philosophy and strategies bomb badly, and some people who don't give that good an impression on paper do very well.

If we're talking about how you recognize a good dossier or a potentially attractive candidate before that person gets to strut their stuff in a detailed on-campus interview, I think IA's site provisions a great deal of information about pedagogy that I would find very helpful and that would give me a sense of a good "teaching intellect" at work.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 8:24 AM
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I don't really disagree with anything you've said. I was mostly trying to correct an impression that lots of people seem to have, and that your first comment may have deepened: that candidates for liberal arts college positions (among others) don't have to give much evidence of teaching ability, so the evidence on the IA's site would fill a large evidential gap.

In my experience, like yours, teaching evaluations from other institutions don't play a big role -- except that there has to be some evidence of teaching ability for a candidate to get an interview, and typically that takes the form of evals (the comments, not the numbers) or of a letter from someone who has seen the candidate in the classroom.

So could it be relevant that a candidate has run a website like the IA's? Yes, that could help get the candidate an interview.

But Erin O'Connor was suggesting that it should help get the candidate the job, as well being relevant to research criteria. That still seems too radical a proposal to me.

But, again, all I'm now concerned to address is the common assumption that hiring committees only care about research and aren't in the business of gathering robust evidence of teaching ability. At all the places I've taught research ability is really really important. But teaching ability -- as measured by this rigorous evidentiary standard -- is nonetheless frequently a deal-breaker.

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 8:54 AM
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One final comment.

It seems that the IA's friends (and maybe the IA herself?) are getting rather angry about all these discussions of her. I hope it's clear that I've not been discussing her at all, but merely the issue raised by the proposal that the ability to run a blog like hers (which, again, I thoroughly admired) should be a hiring criterion.

Okay? I do hope no one's taking any of this discussion personally.

(And I have to wonder why I'm writing all these comments here of all places! I mean, aside from the need to procrastine about end-of-term tasks...)

Posted by: Ted H. | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 1:24 PM
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Frankly, after a couple of email conversations with Leiter, and reading his stuff after several links, I'd be hard pressed to think of a better general example of the common asshole.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) | Link to this comment | 05-19-04 7:45 PM
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